Tag Archives: Alex Gray

Alex Gray’s New Crimes – Bloody Scotland

My resolve was to try new authors. At least new to me. And then Alex Gray turned out to have a whole event featuring new crime writers, which was perfect. She herself was obviously not new. The others were. Sort of.

While I didn’t recognise the very smiley Felicia Yap, as soon as she mentioned that she had been introduced to her husband by Anton Du Beke, I knew I had read about her in the Guardian recently. She is one of these people you want to dislike, because they are both attractive and talented and can do/have done so much.

Rob Ewing, Ian Skewis, Mark Hill, Felicia Yap and Alex Gray

This must be what led Mark Hill to claim that he had also been a catwalk model, although I feel that ‘only being a journalist’ is no bad thing. Ian Skewis, on the other hand, was a ‘pissed off’ former actor, and Rob Ewing a Falkirk GP. Ordinary, but not really ordinary. All four have got a debut crime novel out, something that made Alex point out that anyone can become a crime writer.

Rob’s book – The Last of Us – is set on Barra, except he doesn’t say it’s Barra, but it is. The bit he read to us was partly about posting coconuts through a letterbox, and surprised cows. I think it was, anyway. Ian read on the Kindle from his A Murder of Crows, which he began writing in 1989, and as he mentioned finding a dead body (in real life) ten years earlier, I’m having trouble working out his age. He looks younger than that.

Mark Hill and Felicia Yap with Alex Gray

Mark Hill’s novel Two O’Clock Boy was always going to be a crime novel. No doubt about that. Finding out it was going to be published made him the happiest ever. Unless that was having a child. And Felicia read from Yesterday, about the difficulty of solving a crime when you can only remember the last 48 hours. She might have claimed she wrote it on the dance floor.

(I’m wondering if books featuring amnesia are ‘in’?)

I found it interesting that all four had strong opinions on how to write, despite not having lots of books under their belts. Maybe they have lots of unpublished ones? Mark plots on a blackboard with coloured pens. Felicia writes anywhere as she travels a lot, and her writing in Germany differs from that in Italy.

Rob does only a little plotting and planning, while Ian said that writing over so many years has had an impact on the book. That, and being OCD, and having your characters talk to you. He crowdfunded his novel, which has caused him to have 900 friends on Facebook, after having virtually none.

Rob Ewing and Ian Skewis

How do you know when your book is finished? Felicia reckons when you are tired of it. She did 14 edits on Yesterday. Rob wrote fast, and Mark a bit less so, and as we’ve mentioned, Ian took a very long time. There’s the issue of having a day job, too.

Titles are difficult. All went through several, and had help from editors and agents.

Asked whether they could see themselves writing a series about the same character for 30 years, like Ian Rankin or Val McDermid, Mark reckoned he wants to have a go, and is already on the second book [about the same character]. Felicia is writing a prequel, and here I got rather lost in the days of the week. Might be called Today, or perhaps Tomorrow?

Caro Ramsay was in the audience, and she wants Ian Skewis to read audiobooks, because his own reading was so fantastic.

Finally, Mark had a question for Rob, the GP. He wanted to know how he would go about starting a pandemic. And Rob has clearly given this some thought, as he had his reply ready and waiting, finishing with ‘that will do the job.’

Well, that’s good, I suppose…

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Bloody Scotland – Saturday

Bloody Scotland on Saturday morning began with me picking up my press pass at the Golden Lion hotel, where you could almost not move for bumping into crime writers. Chris Brookmyre was being interviewed – I think – in the foyer. It was dark. And Ann Landmann was there to manage the venue. It had something to do with someone having to go to a wedding. We agreed that people should be very careful when they get married.

C L Taylor and Sarah Pinborough

Ran past Gordon Brown and Graeme Macrae Burnet, and ‘someone else’ on my way upstairs where I bumped into James Oswald, who very kindly offered his cows to be photographed in case Daughter felt inclined. His are real coos, unlike the fake she found last week. Alanna Knight was hovering, and two of the three Queens of Lit-Grip – Sarah Pinborough and C L Taylor – were signing after their early event. (I’d considered going to that, but decided they scared me too much.)

After checking out the bookshop I went and sat while waiting for my first event, being waved at by Craig Robertson, and eventually moving away to avoid overhearing a conversation that was going into far too much detail regarding an operation. I know this was Bloody Scotland, but there are limits!

Once in the Golden Lion Ballroom – which is a good room for events (except for loud conversations in the bookshop from behind the curtain) – I was reminded of the free books on the chairs from bookdonors, who sponsor Bloody Scotland. I did what many in the audience did; looked to see if a neighbouring chair had a better book to offer. And I couldn’t help getting some satisfaction from seeing Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer on the floor, under one of the chairs. Their books. Not the actual men. Although that would have been funny too.

Michael Ridpath, C F Peterson and Catriona McPherson

After Off the Beaten Track, I did what I usually do, which is take blurry photos of the signing authors. I saw Thomas Enger, but felt it would be unfair to make myself known to him yet again, so soon after Edinburgh.

Walked up the hill a bit, and then down towards the Albert Halls for my afternoon event, meeting hordes of people presumably coming away from an event there. One of them seemed to be Neil Oliver, and I most definitely refrained from saying hello to him. I suspect he doesn’t want to meet any more Swedes.

Val McDermid

Sat on a bench in the sun, eating my lunch, before popping into the Albert Halls bookshop to see who all those people had been to see. Val McDermid. Obviously. She was still signing, with a long queue to go. I bought an emergency piece of cake (that should teach me to come out with too little to eat) and squeezed out past the long queue waiting for the next event, with Peter May. Mine was in the new Bloody Scotland venue, the Albert Park South Church, across the road.

Albert Park South

It was a far better place than I had been expecting, with plenty of space, toilets and a small bookshop table. And tea! I needed tea to go with the emergency cake. I was there to see Alex Gray introduce some newbies to crime writing, and very appropriately, all the chairs had the same book to offer; a proof of another debut author.* Which just goes to show that Bloody Scotland think about what they do.

Rob Ewing, Ian Skewis, Mark Hill, Felicia Yap and Alex Gray

After the event I gathered up my tea and put it in my pocket (it works if you move carefully) and set about taking more iffy photographs. Looked longingly at the book table but sensibly left all the books where they were, and walked home in the sunshine. It was almost too warm. That’s Scotland for you!

*Bloody January by Alan Parks. And yes, the title sounds like the festival, and the author like the church…

Shetland Noir, only once removed

I’m the kind of witch who can recognise Denise Mina from behind, out of context (i.e. not at some book festival). On the other hand, my Shetland Noir representative, Helen Grant, had no idea who this ‘tremendously likeable’ woman was, gorgeous black furry boots and all. They travelled on the same plane, which despite it being Friday the 13th suffered no mishap, which is lucky for Scottish crime and its future. Helen did know the other crime writer at the airport, though, as she had been at Oxford with MJ McGrath.

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Helen was on her way to Shetland to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy for writing the winning short story – The Beach House – from, as it turned out, the very hands of Jimmy Perez, aka actor Doug Henshall. Not bad for a simple misuse of a kitchen utensil. (I can just see how he stands there muttering, ‘not the cheese grater. Please not the cheese grater!’)

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Strangely (!) Helen was quite keen to see a bit of beautiful Shetland while she was there, so apart from the grand reception and award thing on the Friday night, she ‘only’ went to two events, but they both sound really good. Also very female, because as we know, women scare and kill best. Just look at Helen herself.

Donald Anderson, Jacky Collins, Mari Hannah, Denise Mina, Ann Cleeves and Alexandra Sokoloff

There was a panel on the benefits and pitfalls of screen adaptations, with Alexandra Sokoloff, Ann Cleeves, Denise Mina and Mari Hannah, chaired by Jacky Collins. It’s apparently a bit like adopting a baby, and learning to step away. Ann Cleeves had Vera Stanhope adapted after the producer picked up a copy of her book in Oxfam.

According to Alexandra, who has a past as a screenwriter, in America television does sell books, whereas Ann recognises that viewers might not be readers. Denise has had a very successful adaptation made from her book, totally authentic down to the 1980s Irn Bru sign on Central Station.  And on the benefits of adapting a book, Denise said that we love books – ‘That’s why we’re all dweebing out when there’s a perfectly good craft fair on.’ The book is the real connection with another human being.

Jake Kerridge, Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar

The cheerfully named Killer Women is a London-based group of female (obviously) crime writers, which started as a social group, but now meet to discuss murder as well. In Lerwick Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar spoke to Jake Kerridge about women in crime, both as writers, detectives and victims. Apparently if the victim is male he must suffer as a spy or at war, and not in a domestic setting.

MJ McGrath enjoys turning things round, like having a female detective instead of just as the sidekick. Her male detective breeds lemmings, in order to replace those who jump off cliffs… Louise Millar has interviewed people affected by crime, several years afterwards, to learn of the long term effects. And MJ interviewed some Hell’s Angels after a murder. She felt that being a woman was an advantage in that situation: ‘Either they want to impress you or they don’t take you seriously.’

Women are ‘equal opportunities readers’ and will read books by both women and men, but men are more likely to read men. Helen Giltrow, who works in a male dominated sector, espionage, has been told ‘you write like a man.’ MJ commented that ‘I have been told with great sincerity and as a compliment, I write like a brunette!’

On sex and violence Laura said that she has heard male writers say that women can go further because if a man writes about sexual violence people will think that he is a pervert who really wants to do it! Louise added that there is also the issue of having to write ‘likeable’ women, which is very constraining.

(I’ve never noticed any ‘constraining’…)

On the gossip front the latest news from Ann Cleeves seems to be a non-crime (I’m guessing non-fiction) book about Shetland. Because she loves it. Alex Gray is incredibly nice, and she and Helen talked about Bloody Scotland. Valerie Laws’ sleep was not helped by waves breaking against the hotel wall right beneath her window. (At least the sea stayed on the outside.) Marsali Taylor wins [Helen’s] prize for best dressed crime writer, with a stunning fuchsia silk fitted dress with gold embroidery and matching trousers.

After a weekend like this, Helen can almost see herself having more of a go at adult crime. It was ‘inspiring.’ And next time she flies to Shetland, her woolly hat will be in her hand luggage.

Doug Henshall and Helen Grant, by Dale Smith

Sophie Hannah on Poirot

Sunday morning at Bloody Scotland just had to mean Sophie Hannah on writing the new Poirot. As Alex Gray who talked to Sophie said, it’s the kind of thing that will make you very excited. There had been a lot of serendipity involved in her getting the job, which involved Sophie’s crazy maverick of an agent (a man with hints of Sophie’s mother, Adèle Geras), a HarperCollins editor, Agatha Christie Ltd, and the fact that Sophie already had an idea for a plot that she simply couldn’t make fit into her own novels.

A life-long Agatha Christie fan, Sophie knew the books very well (and hearing her talk about them made me want to rush home and start re-reading), and like Poirot she is rather OCD (in her case about the tassels on her Persian rug). She reckons that David Suchet is Poirot, but she didn’t write with him in mind. There is a strong film interest in her book, The Monogram Mysteries, but as she pointed out, David Suchet has said he won’t do more Poirot.

Sophie Hannah

The novel is set in 1929 in the gap between The Mystery of the Blue Train and Peril at End House. Poirot has gone on holiday, to temporary lodgings opposite his own flat (which seems to have been inspired by Sophie’s father, Norman Geras), in order to be free from people seeking his help. The story is told from the point of view of a young detective called Catchpool, to avoid Sophie having to try and imitate Agatha’s style of writing. Catchpool is there to offset Poirot, to be bright, but obtuse.

One of the many coincidences in her being given the task of writing the book was that long before this she had booked a family holiday staying at Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway. Another odd thing was that the week they were there, the filming of Dead Man’s Folly took place on the property. Sophie worked every evening, and by the time the holiday was over, she had the whole novel in her head. She is ‘very serious about crime fiction’ which is the best kind of fiction.

She accidentally invented a new way of writing while jotting down her ten page plan, when it became 100 pages with every detail of the book. Sophie found that this meant she could forget worrying about plotting while also trying to write nicely, as the job had already been done. (She has since written her latest novel in this way as well.)

Before Sophie was allowed to go public with the news about her book, she discovered on Twitter that feelings go very deep when it comes to people taking over writing somebody else’s work, and she was shocked but not worried. She sat down and thought about it and came to the conclusion it wasn’t morally wrong, and that real fans would want to read a new book, and others were free to not read it. Most of her Twitter followers have since come round, with the help of tea and scones, except for Troy in Minnesota.

There was no reason to list what had to be in the book; she knew instinctively what it needed. She’d be happy to write another Poirot, but does not feel she should be the one to write about Miss Marple – a shrewd old bat – but this would be better done by someone else, like Lee Child…

Her Christie favourites keep changing, but Murder on the Orient Express remains on top, along with Sleeping Murder, and more recently Lord Edgware Dies (it’s got the best murderer in it) and After the Funeral (best motive) and Appointment With Death (psychological tyrant).

People who say Agatha was not a terribly great writer are wrong. There’s a reason Agatha Christie sold more books than anyone else, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare. The books can be read by a 12-year-old ill in bed, or a middle aged professor. They are the perfect blend of simple and complex; funny but filled with darkness, suffering and torment. Sophie reckons that people who say the books are no good ‘might just be a bit stupid.’

Sophie Hannah

The last question of the morning came from ‘Troy  in Minnesota,’ or so he claimed. Probably here for his tea and scones. Sophie said she likes rules, whether for poetry, crime or Agatha Christie. And her own next book has a bit of Golden Age Mystery in it, now that her appetite for such things has been awakened.

Alex Gray spoke for all of us when she said that we would happily have stayed another hour. At least. I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t get out of bed early enough to hear Sophie talk Christie.

A Bloody Brilliant Crime Weekend

Lin Anderson and Alex Gray are used to murdering people, and on Friday night they toasted their victims in prosecco (which was really water, or so they claimed) to mark the start of Bloody Scotland, their ‘baby’ in the ‘Harrogate of the North.’ (That’s Stirling for the uninitiated.)

Alex Gray and Lin Anderson and drinkers

They ran through all the reasons for a Scottish crimefest, and then called in Ian Rankin to consider the merits of them, and he seemed to think it was a sound idea. Hard to be sure, because he mumbled a bit from time to time.

But it is a good idea; this ‘weekend to die for.’ The Albert Halls were packed on Friday evening when Lin and Alex and Ian provided the arguments for yet another crime festival. Something for a country with fewer spinsters and tiny gentlemen, and ‘with a bit more gas’ to put it bluntly.

Scotland has plenty of places not yet used in fiction. Everywhere is fair game. And crime is not subsidised or sponsored, so it has to sell. It has to be good. Ian Rankin said he wanted to write what he thought his father might want to read. He himself grew up on Alistair MacLean (well, who didn’t?), but pointed out that all of his books were set outside Scotland.

When they opened the floor to questions the audience was unusually reticent until Barry Forshaw set the ball rolling by wondering if we – they – need to be worried about the Scandinavians.

Yes, they do need to be concerned about the Scandinavians. Especially beware the ones in Stirling this weekend.

Ian Rankin

Ian moaned about the difference in television hours between Rebus and the Killing, and made the obvious statement that Branagh is Branagh. As for himself he prefers the second Wallander, which is probably Krister Henriksson.

After discussing how it’s harder to murder people with obscure poisons these days, the audience got friskier, culminating in one writer advertising his own crime novels and asking Ian for advice on publishing and ‘how to become a little more rich.’

The move on to sockpuppets was probably unavoidable, although not everyone knew what they are. But as Ian said about himself and his Scottish crime writing peers, ‘we’re the gang.’

This gang drank – another – toast to Bloody Scotland, signed books in the BS bookshop, and then swanned off to a grand dinner at the Highland Hotel.